Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Against Graduation

The highlight of university graduations is the commencement address, where a prominent personality offers the students words of wisdom about entering the real world. Oftentimes the speaker, a celebrity or politician, is a mismatch for this dramatic speech; and as a result, the advice given is banal earnestness interspersed with second rate humor. The actor Will Ferrell, described this problem in his own commencement speech when he said: “I would also like to apologize to all the parents who are sitting there, saying, ‘Will Ferrell? Why Will Ferrell?.”

This year, when reading reports of the most recent batch of commencement addresses, I allowed myself to imagine what I would say. Then it hit me: the best advice to give graduates is that they should never graduate. The word “graduate” implies a conclusion; but learning must never stop, and intellectual curiosity must be lifelong. There is no graduation from learning.

Sadly, most university graduates leave learning once they leave the university. Critics of contemporary universities such as William Deresiewicz have noted that even the best universities have taken on a commercial ethos, and are an assembly line for career advancement. As a result the humanities suffer, and students are left with materialistic ambitions and intellectual apathy.

This decline in intellectual curiosity has lead to a coarsening of the public discourse. “High minded” discussion now revolves around politics and business, while too much conversation focuses on gossip, celebrities and TV shows. This is not surprising: serious, nuanced ideas can't compete in a world of social media. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”; sadly today too many lives are lived on the superficial plane, unexplored and unexamined. Our collective intellectual decline is a worrisome trend, one which could eventually impact on the health of Western democracies. Leon Wieseltier, in his Brandeis Commencement address in 2013 put it this way: “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?”

For the Jewish community this loss of intellectual interest is a calamity. Judaism sees Torah study as an all encompassing activity. One is obligated to study in every free moment, and learning is meant to be a passion, vocation, and the ultimate aspiration. Life without learning is unthinkable, and if the unexamined life is not worth living, then the Jewishly unexamined life is not worth pursuing. That is why Jews have always cherished learning. Jerome, the Church father, remarked that in the fourth century that the average Jew knew the Tanakh by heart. In Eastern Europe, even the less educated, such as bakers and coachmen, would hurry at night to study the weekly Parsha.

That has come to a halt. Mirroring the general intellectual malaise, too much of Jewish discourse has become superficial. To be Jewish now means to visit Israel, to make Jewish jokes, and to eat gefilte fish; all wonderful things of course, (except perhaps for gefilte fish), but lacking in substance. Study, if done at all, is pursued as a leisure activity. But our tradition takes the view that Torah, and wisdom in general, are not hobbies; they are existential needs, and life is unimaginable without learning.

My Yeshiva training exposed me to great personalities who saw learning as all important. In my years as a student I heard many a time about Rav Soloveitchik’s famous “Thanksgiving lecture of 1976”. That morning, he spent 5 hours in class trying to resolve a difficult question. Even though everyone (including Rav Soloveitchik himself) had to travel home for Thanksgiving dinner, he exclaimed that "no one can leave here until we understand what that Tosafot is saying!”.

This is learning that is a passion and not a hobby. And when learning is a passion, there are no graduations, and all of life is an intellectual journey.

Friday, June 30, 2017

What Is the Job of a Rabbi in the Pulpit?

My article on politics in the pulpit, and what Rabbis should be saying in their sermons, was published in Tablet Magazine.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Love after Death

Without question, the two most powerful forces in life are love and death. They are the opposing polarities of existence, creating life and taking it away, bringing enormous joy and causing overwhelming sorrow. All of life is a footnote to the themes of love and death.

Love is intoxicating. The biblical book of Song of Songs portrays the enormous power of love, with lovers who are “lovesick” (a term from the Song of Songs) and act irrationally. When Jacob falls in love with Rachel, he dramatically overpays for her dowry. Even so, Jacob imagines that he is the one who is getting a bargain, because he is so in love with Rachel. Jacob is blinded by love.

William Blake captures this mindless blindness in a short poem:  “Love to faults is always blind, Always is to joy inclin’d, Lawless, wing’d and unconfin’d, And breaks all chains from every mind”. Love hatches remarkable dreams that fly in every direction; with love nothing seems impossible.

Death brings a blindness of its own. When King Solomon writes the book of Kohelet, he begins with a complaint about the pointlessness of life; death confounds Solomon, the ultimate question without any answer. What point does life have, he asks, if the righteous man meets the same end as the wicked, and the wise man meets the same end as an animal? Overwhelmed by death, a blind cynicism descends, choking off any experience of joy.

The experiences described in the Song of Songs and Kohelet, the experiences of love and death, are each on their own way intoxicating; yet together they are absolutely incompatible. However, a third biblical book brings both of these themes together: the Book of Ruth. A family moves away from Israel and then is devastated by death, with a father and two sons who die at a young age. Alone and impoverished, one of the wives, Ruth, returns with her mother-in-law Naomi to Israel. Refusing to quit on life, Ruth persists despite discrimination and desperation to pursue a better life. She insists that she will rebuild the broken home and perpetuate the family of her husband and father in law; and in the end she does just that.

The Book of Ruth is not just a book of love and death; it is book about about a different type of love, a love that occurs after death. Instead of succumbing to cynicism, this love battles death; and instead of intoxication, this love arrives with the determination. The Book of Ruth defines redemption as the ability to rebuild and fix that which was broken; and that is  precisely what Ruth’s love does. Ruth teaches us that the road to redemption is found when you can continue to love after a tragedy, and when your love rebuilds a broken world.

Jewish history is a history of redemption. It is the story of people who continued to love despite tragedy, who rebuilt even though they had every reason to be bitter and cynical. In the last 75 years, we have watched the story of redemption unfold once again. Crushed by the Holocaust,  the Jewish people simply should have given up. Yet the survivors of these horrors followed Ruth’s example. They were part of the Bericha and smuggled in on boats to Israel, and thousands went directly to fight for the new state. Others arrived in North America ; they married, built families, businesses and communities.

I have been privileged to know many of these survivors, the redemptive rebuilders of the Jewish community. They gave charity with a fury, demanding a better world than the one they had escaped; and they celebrated with a unique joy, knowing that with each simcha they once again defied the angel of death. And when they made a l’chaim at a celebration, you could see in the twinkle of their eyes something remarkable: the miracle of redemption, the ability of love to overcome death.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Why Israel? A Haven, a Homeland, a Holy Land - Yom Haatzmaut 2017

Maybe it was crazy.

In February 2003, I led a mission to Israel shortly before the Iraq War. It was a time of great nervousness; when we arrived, we were greeted by full page ads in the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz from the Canadian government, advising Canadians to be ready to leave Israel. There was enormous concern that the war would break out, and Saddam Hussein would once again fire scuds at Israel.

Lisa and I walked up to the ticket counter in the airport with four kids aged 3 to 7 running excitedly in circles, and two small mountains of luggage precariously balanced on baggage carts; and with this bit of domestic chaos, we started checking in for our flight. Surveying the scene, the ticket agent did her best to help us. “Where are you going?” she asked in a sweet voice. “Tel Aviv”, I answered. She hesitated for a moment and said “I hope everything goes OK for you”.  I am not a mind reader, but I could readily tell that what she meant to say was: “are you crazy! Why are you bringing small children to a war zone?”.

“Are you crazy?” is the perfect question to start any discussion of Israel. Like any passion, those who don’t share the passion are bewildered by it.  Why are Zionists Zionists? Why do they love Israel?

There was a time when you didn’t have to explain Zionism, because Jews desperately needed a haven. The two millennia of Jewish life in exile are stained with a relentless stream of anti-Semitism. There are too many episodes of violence to count, including massacres, pogroms, Crusades, and expulsions. Even in the relatively “tranquil” times, Jews were second class citizens, the objects of legal and social discrimination.  A medieval author phrases it this way, in a passage included in the Monday and Thursday prayers: “Look down from heaven and see that we have become scorned and insulted among the nations, we have been led like sheep to the slaughter, to be murdered, destroyed, stricken, and disgraced.”  Exile was always an irritation, and often a misery.

Anti-Semitism spiked unexpectedly at the end of the 19th century. The Dreyfus Trial, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Kishinev Massacre, the Beilus Blood Libel, and the rise of anti-Semitic parties all foreshadowed the Holocaust. It was this atmosphere that inspired Theodore Herzl to seek a safe haven for the Jews. There is a bitter joke told that in 1939 a Viennese Jew enters a travel agent's office and says, "I want to buy a steamship ticket." "Where to?" the clerk asks. "Let me look at your globe, please." Every time he suggests a country, the clerk raises an objection. "This one requires visa, ... this one is not admitting any more Jews, ... the waiting list to get in there is ten years." Finally the Jew looks up and says: "Pardon me, do you have another globe?". Jews desperately needed a safe haven in the 1930’s, and tragically, they did not have one.

Israel is now the Jewish safe haven. Over the years, she has received Jews escaping  from Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia and the Soviet Union, and protected Jews in Entebbe, Kenya and beyond. Even today, for Jews in France and Venezuela, Israel acts as a security blanket for worried communities.

However, having a safe haven is not important if you live in an open, multicultural society. For American Jews, the United States might be more comfortable than Israel. Considering that Jews have other havens, one might argue that Israel is an anachronism.

This question is an old one. During discussions with Chaim Weizmann over the possibility of a Jewish territory under the British mandate, Arthur Balfour asked the same question of Chaim Weizmann: wouldn’t Uganda be just as good? Weizman records his response and the rest of the conversation:

"Mr. Balfour, supposing I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?" He sat up, looked at me, and answered: "But Dr. Weizmann, we have London." "That is true," I said, "but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh."

Israel is not just a haven; it is a homeland. It is the birthplace of the Jewish people, and the land that has nurtured the Jewish soul for 3,300 years. There is a unique connection to a homeland, where you naturally put down roots and flourish.  The Bible records that when the farmer would bring an offering of first fruits, he would issue a declaration that unlike his ancestors he no longer has to wander; instead, he can experience the blessings of being rooted in one place, having a home that nurtures the soul as well as the body.

There is a theory that Jewish creativity is an side effect of exile; years of improvising to survive have turned the Jews into master improvisers in every arena, including science and culture. It is an interesting theory, but incorrect; the record of the State of Israel contradicts this. On the contrary, having roots, having a homeland has allowed Jews to flourish in multiple ways. Israel has become a world leader in culture, science, and social services. Returning home hasn’t dampened Jewish creativity, it has actually increased it. As the Jewish farmer might say, having roots bears fruit, and having a country of your own unleashes the spirit.  A homeland is transformative, even if you feel at home in another country.

Israel has been a haven and homeland; but for the religious Zionist, another answer is far more significant: Israel is the holy land. This theme begins in the Bible, and trickles all the way down to pop culture, which is why all visitors to the Western Wall, (including artists, athletes, and actors), leave a note for God in its crevices.

However, it a mistake to assume that the idea of a holy land is for the religious only, and that the holiness of Israel is found only in historic shrines.

A few years ago a woman approached me with a request. She was trying to convey to her son, an atheist, what Israel was all about. She had brought him to the Western Wall, but it had very little impact on him. So she turned to me for advice on how she could inspire her son to feel a connection to Israel.

I told her that I find my greatest inspiration in Israel at the shopping malls of Tel Aviv. Yes, that is correct: at the shopping mall (even though I hate shopping). The reason why is because it’s at a shopping mall that the triple miracle of modern Israel is most apparent. First of all, the Jews should have disappeared after 2,000 years of exile and persecution. Second of all, the country of Israel is perhaps the most improbable event in all of history, a fossil that was extinct for 2,000 years coming back to life. And third of all, this country, built by a mixed multitude of lonely refugees, should have been a charity case rather than a world leader with a first world economy. The fact that the Jews are here, the State of Israel is here, and it is a world leader despite decades of constant attacks, is the equivalent of winning the lottery three times in a row. That, even for an atheist, has to be pretty remarkable. To quote Isaiah: “Who has ever heard of such things? Who has ever seen things like this?” After walking around a cutting edge Israeli shopping mall, even a non-believer can stand in inspiration of these miracles, and see this land as inspiring, even holy.

Israel is a haven, a homeland and holyland; and she is at her best when you can glimpse all three at the same time. One such example is anecdote that was shared on Facebook during Operation Defensive Edge in 2014:  

“The father of a soldier who is now in Gaza told how his son was informed on Friday that his unit will not be going home for Shabbat, which was a problem, because they did not have any provisions for Shabbat. The father ran to the supermarket to buy some things, as many dips and salads as he could, and then he stopped at the shwarma stand in Petach Tikva. He asked for a shwarma to be put into an aluminium tray and explained that it was a Shabbat meal for his son who is in Gaza. The owner said to him "what do you mean for your son? How many soldiers are in his group?" The father answered "70". The owner called over his workers and they brought out all of their meat, fried schnitzels, prepared Moroccan salads and chips and within an hour he and all of his workers had emptied the entire restaurant and given it over to the father. The father just stood there crying and thanking him.”

This powerful anecdote is a microcosm of the story of Israel. It is about a safe haven protected by dedicated soldiers. It is about a homeland where even the man at the local shwarma stand is like a member of family. And it is about a holyland, a place filled with a unique heart and soul. There are many things that make Israel extraordinary, but one of them is this: if you need 70 shawarmas on a Friday, there’s someone who will stop everything and get them for you.

Chag Sameach!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Small Picture and the Big Picture

The “trolley problem” is a powerful moral dilemma that forces us to define our ethical beliefs. The brakes on a trolley have stopped working. The conductor sees that there are five people working on the track, and if the trolley continues downhill it will kill them. He looks to his right, and sees that  he can turn the trolley onto a railroad spur. Unfortunately, on the railroad spur one person is working, and will be killed by if the conductor turns the trolley. What should he do?

The trolley problem asks: are you allowed to murder one person to save the lives of five others? Do the ends justify the means? This issue has long been debated by philosophers, and the two viewpoints are called deontological (or absolutist) and utilitarian. When I teach the trolley problem  in classes, most people take the utilitarian view that you kill one to save others. It seems to be a question of simple mathematics: five lives are greater than one.

What is fascinating is that the halachic tradition takes the other view. Starting from the Jerusalem Talmud to Maimonides and the Rama, Halacha forbids committing murder even under more extreme circumstances than the trolley problem. Why is this so?

A fascinating way of looking at this debate is offered by Thomas Nagel. He writes that: “Absolutism is associated with a view of oneself as a small being interacting with others in a large world…. (while) Utilitarianism is associated with a view of oneself as a benevolent bureaucrat distributing such benefits as one can control to countless other beings…..”.  The perspective of absolutism looks at the small picture, and asks what is my moral responsibility to a specific person. The utilitarian perspective looks at the big picture, and tries to get the best outcome for the entire world. The Talmud believes the small picture is the morally superior perspective. You need to do what is right to your neighbor before you run off and save the entire world.

In real life situations, we intuitively turn to this perspective. During the Holocaust, Jewish councils had to decide whether or not to turn over some of their population to the Nazis in order to help save the others. The rare few who collaborated with the Nazis with the rationale of saving lives, like Chaim Rumkowski, were vilified and judged harshly by history. Five against one looks like a mathematical problem until you are faced with doing the killing yourself.

Judaism sees the world through the small picture, and the Mishnah declares that saving the life of one person is as if you have saved an entire world. It is not that Judaism doesn’t worry about the global picture; it simply believes that we see the big picture through the lens of the small picture, and that global consciousness begins with personal relationships.  

The small picture perspective is not just about moral choices, it is also about building community. It is easy to discuss politics and only consider the big picture about what will be the best policies for our country, and forget about our friends and neighbors. In our political zeal, we find it intolerable to talk to anyone with a different point of view, and at times it seems as if people of different political persuasions are hermetically sealed from each other. (Much the same is true of Jews with different religious viewpoints; even Orthodox Jews with different views on women’s ordination can’t have a civil conversation together). This is a tragedy. Enamored with the big picture, we start to love America so much that we begin to hate other Americans, and love Judaism so much that we start to hate other Jews.

The Talmud’s lesson is that we fix the big picture only by fixing the small picture first. Hopefully we will remember this lesson before it is too late.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Country Club Synagogue and the Future of Orthodoxy

Why did the student choose Chabad over the Orthodox Hillel minyan?

At a panel discussion in our synagogue, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove related the following about a congregant. She was a freshman at an Ivy league university, and even though she was raised in a Conservative synagogue, she visited the Orthodox minyanim. The vibrant Hillel minyan seemed closed and cold to her; in the end, she felt most welcome at the Chabad minyan.

This would seem counterintuitive; after all, the Hillel minyan is Modern Orthodox, with a sophisticated and contemporary crowd. So why did she feel more comfortable at Chabad?

The answer might seem simple: Chabad is more welcoming; people prefer Chabad because everyone feels at home. But that answer only begs the question. Why aren’t Orthodox synagogues more welcoming?

This question is critical. In the 2013 Pew study, Orthodox Jews make up 10% of the American Jewish population. While Orthodoxy has done a reasonable job of retaining the younger generation, and Orthodox Jews have large families, for the most part, Orthodoxy is not an attractive alternative for 90% of American Jews. Why? We should at least be able to reach 15% or 18% of American Jews?

Finding an answer requires a serious look at the culture of synagogues. In my experience, there are three types of synagogues: train stations, country clubs, and block parties.

The train station offers a full schedule for services. You can take a shacharit at 6:10, 7:15 and 8:30; you can take an “express”, or a full stop tefillah. Like a train, you remain anonymous even while in public. (The best example of  a train station synagogue is the shtibel, where there are multiple services in multiple rooms). One wonders if this truly fulfills the Halakhic concept of public prayer, because there is no sense of community, just a collection of individuals praying at the same time.

This type of experience can occur even in large, well established congregations. Gary Rosenblatt relates how a friend told him that when he was sitting shiva, he couldn’t identify someone who visited several times. "He looked familiar but I couldn't place him….I finally asked him who he was and he said, 'I'm the guy who's been sitting in your row in shul on Shabbat for the last six years."

That’s what it’s like praying in a train station. You don’t know the other commuters.

The open house is the exact opposite. All are welcome and warmly welcomed, and you are immediately included in the services, the kiddush and lunch invitations. Most Chabads are like this, but this attitude is not unique to Chabad. Any synagogue with sense of urgency will be welcoming.  Small communities will also warmly welcome new families; without them, the synagogue will close. What Chabad recognizes is that we all should have a sense of urgency about American Jewry, and that the welcoming must be done by everyone, everywhere.

But most synagogues are not open houses; the vast majority of synagogues are “country clubs”.

These congregations are there to serve their members. If you’re a member, the synagogue is yours: it’s your rabbi, your seat, and your friends. For an outsider, the experience is very different. There is actually a synagogue where most of the seats are owned by members, and if an outsider enters, he is told not to sit in those seats, even if the member is out of town. In country club synagogues, anyone who isn’t a “regular” doesn’t belong.

But why are there so many synagogues country clubs? Part of the answer lies in history. Many synagogues started out as clubs. In 1905,  Charles Seligman Bernheimer described the emergence of new synagogues in Philadelphia:

“A few individuals, usually such as came from the same town or district, ….. banded themselves together to form a beneficial society ordinarily bearing the name of the town or district whence most of the members came. The aim of such societies, in the first instance, was to assist financially any of the members who might be sick, to provide burial for the dead…. After the society became strengthened in numbers, a hall was hired for meeting purposes and was converted into a praying room. …..(and) the society imperceptibly turned into a congregation…..”

These synagogues were a slice of home in the new world. The synagogue was not just a house of prayer, but also a fraternal club where one could reconnect with old friends from the old country. This social club attitude has remained, and infiltrated many synagogues whatever their history, and now the country club synagogue is part of our DNA.

The main obstacle to changing the synagogue is that the country club model is quite compelling. Robert Putnam, in  his book Bowling Alone, delineates two types of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital is what creates deep connections, whether it be in country clubs or synagogue sisterhoods. It molds people together into one cohesive community. Bridging social capital is when you reach out and network with new people and create new connections. Bonding will connect you to the friends who bring you chicken soup when you’re sick; through bridging you acquire the type of contacts that can help you find a job interview.

Bonding is exceptionally important, and the country club synagogue serves a critical social role. It is a place where everybody knows your name, and where your friends become a part of your family. And that is why it is such a difficult model to change.

But we must learn how to bridge. Putnam quotes Xavier de Souza Briggs who says that bonding capital is good for getting by, while bridging capital is good for getting ahead. Right now, the Orthodox community is getting by, but we are not getting ahead, and that is why we are stuck at 10%. We bond well with those close to us; but as a community, we are rather poor at building bridges to people of different backgrounds. And even on campus, Orthodox minyanim have a tendency to settle into old country club habits.

That must change. Orthodox synagogues must have a sense of urgency about the Jewish future. And we must build a Jewish future by building bridges to other Jews.